The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953. 9/10

Probably my favorite atomic-age sci-fi movie. Very influential in jumpstarting Godzilla, Gorgo, and other nuclear-enhanced reborn dinosaurs. If not the best of the 1950s-1960s giant monster movies; it’s the most memorable, from the squashed toy cars to the scary diving bell and lighthouse attacks. Stars Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, and in a small, but crucial role, Lee Van Cleef.

We learn from a narrator that there’s a nuclear test blast in the Arctic; pretty spectacular iceberg slides, as well as the mushroom cloud itself. Sure enough, though, there’s “something strange” on the radar screen. A detachment from the closest base takes a tracked vehicle into the test area to investigate–radiation (surprise!) is pretty bad there. In the haze of a blizzard, one guy, George Ritchie (Ross Elliot) sees a dinosaur roar past, and again, closer up. But then George falls into a crevice, breaking a leg. Unfortunately, because of an avalanche, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Hubschmid) is unable to rescue George, but not before he sees the monster too.

Back at the base, then, quickly, down to New York. To a psych ward, no less; obviously because Tom claims to have seen a prehistoric monster. Colonel Evans (Tobey) comes to visit him, but he’s found no traces of the creature, and doesn’t credit his story either. Well, the next incident is some validation, as a good old fishing boat gets attacked, not by an avalanche, not by the wind, but by an actual creepy gigantic monster.

The next morning, Tom reads about a “sea serpent” sinking the boat. With time-honored the-heck-with-the-authorities righteousness, Tom just leaves the hospital, dropping in on a paleontologist, Professor Thurgood Elson (Kellaway). “Couldn’t it (the monster) have been in a state of hibernation?” Elson is as incredulous as the others, but Lee Hunter (Raymond), the professor’s assistant, more or less vouches for him.

Back at Nesbitt’s Atomic Energy Commission office, Lee comes calling. She tells him there’s more ship-sunk-by-monsters stories. Later, at her place, she shows him innumerable sketches of dinosaurs. Shazam! He finds a good likeness. So, Lee figures if they go to see the surviving captain of the fishing boat with the pictures…maybe that guy can confirm the sighting.

The captain doesn’t want to talk about it. “They think he’s crazy too” Tom concludes. Anyway, Tom goes up to Canada to see the guy. “A bloomin’ hermit he wants to be” says a local. Now, Tom finds another survivor, appropriately, in a hospital. Initially, the guy’s too wound up, but Tom’s able to get him talking. The guy agrees to come to New York. Sure enough he identifies the same picture as the monster he saw. That persuades Elson that there’s something to this after all; I’m not sure why that’s so convincing. Meanwhile, there’s the terrific lighthouse attack–the guys trying to hustle down the stairs while the whole structure collapses in on them is very disturbing. Due to Elson’s influence, the Coast Guard helps out.

That event sets up the very good diving bell scene. Elson and the seaman see a fantastic squid v. shark fight; no sooner is that in the books than the rhedosauras comes creeping along. Somewhat like the other attacks, the creature just destroys the bell, Elson and all. Of course, Lee and Tom are devastated, but there’s no question now that the thing’s real, and very dangerous.

The very creepy juxtaposition of the waterfront, with the nonchalant workers going about their business–interrupted with the gigantic creature coming ashore–is excellent. The rampage is quite well done; it’s a very long scene, punctuated first by the bravery of the lone policemen shooting at the monster. I’ll never forget him getting gobbled up (having first watched this movie about 1960 on TV). Yes, we do see the same toy car getting crushed a few times, and other repetitious stuff, but the sense of horror remains palpable for me, even after all these years.

The panicky crowd bits are well-done too; sensibly, most of the people head for the subways. Another interesting thing is the vulnerability of the creature. It’s wounded by the array of weaponry thrown at it; which actually has the nasty consequence of exposing its radioactive blood. That means, of course, that we need a trick weapon to kill it, as blowing it to bits would be catastrophic for us “the entire city could be in danger.”

Why creatures have to bug amusement parks is an odd thing, maybe it’s the idea of a deep loss of innocence. That is, it’s one thing to attack an isolated spot or a military installation, but something that exists only for fun should be off limits. Some crime movies use an amusement park setting for a climatic escape or shootout–probably for the same reason– that evil shouldn’t be there.

Anyway, we’ve got the Sergeant (Van Cleef) for the “radio-active isotope” rifle grenade deal. The literal roller coaster ride up to the firing position, with all of associations of thrill and fear, the runaway coaster cars, and ramped-up (!) danger of getting thrown to your death, and/or incinerated, is superb drama. Well, Van Cleef doesn’t miss, and the grenade does the job.

I wouldn’t have watched this movie so many times over the decades if it didn’t captivate me. It seems just right in nearly every way. The suspension of disbelief is readily accomplished and sustained; there’s just enough explanation to make the plot credible without many bits straying out of line too much. I do think that two people responding to the same dinosaur picture is slim evidence for Elson’s conclusions. It would help if, say, there’s a Coast Guard sighting of the thing before it’s completely believed.

The other issue, which is generic to this type of movie, involves the nuclear blast that effectively ‘defrosts’ the monster. Ok, but how is it that it’s not ‘overcooked’? I suppose it is, in a sense, because the radioactive blood would eventually kill it anyway. I’m quibbling, though, as The Beast 20K could hardly be better.

I was surprised on this viewing at how much lead-in there is before the creature shows up in New York City. Usually, that sort of delayed pay-off doesn’t help maintain interest. But here it works. The long set-up is a nice mystery in itself. It’s so elegantly plotted that the rampage and denouement almost seem like extra goodies. The pacing slowly builds momentum and tension, so that once the creature is ashore, everything happens very quickly. The very end is pared down too–there’s no wedding or narrator telling us what we saw. All that’s implicit.

There’s really no subplots to distract from the story; the monster is the star. It’s very menacing; it even sounds like a monster. Since all of the characters form a sort of collective antagonist to the monster, there’s no need for a bad guy per se. In a way, the lack of focus on the characters draws the viewer in, to make us feel closer to the events. It’s as though we’re hearing about this on the radio or seeing it on live TV. This is not only a great monster movie, it’s simply a very well-made movie.

Farmermouse ducked into the subway early on, but he said this was worth nine rickety roller coaster rides. 9/10

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